Looking for Gold: An Adventure into Colorado’s Most Remote Wilderness



“We look up from the hotel pool and see my father walking in with a group of police. They talk with Eric’s mom for a few moments, then everyone just loses it….This was the first time I realized you can die in the mountains….I was 5.”

On our seven hour drive from Boulder to Durango, Austin goes on to tell me about the death of his family friend, Joe Stollar, on Mt. Eolus. Austin’s father and Joe hiked into Chicago Basin to climb Mt. Eolus during a joint family trip to Durango in 1987. Near the top of the mountain a large block detached from the ridge with Joe standing on top of it. It’s now 28 years later and Austin is close to the end of a seven-year project to ski all 54 14,000 foot peaks in Colorado. We are en route to the Weminuche Wilderness where he hopes to ski three of his remaining four “14ers,” including Eolus, the peak that took Joe Stollar’s life.


Our group of seven skiers arrives at the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad station. The plan is to take the 130-year-old, coal-burning train 20 miles into the Colorado backcountry where we will access Chicago Basin, a remote drainage containing three 14,000 foot peaks.

The goal is to hike six miles into a base camp on Saturday, ski all three 14ers on Sunday and hike back to the train by 3 p.m. on Monday. It’s not lost on the group that this is an ambitious goal, but we board the train with optimism.


In Durango, the train station is bustling.

Chicago Basin Route Video

chicago-basin-route from Backcountry Magazine on Vimeo.


Our team was assembled by Boulder, Colo.-based skier Austin Porzak, who spent the last seven years skiing from the summit of almost all 54 14ers in Colorado, 50 of them to be exact. This will be one of his final trips to complete his 14er ski project. “Money” Mike Steinman joins the group from Colorado Springs. Like Austin, he is obsessed with skiing the 14ers of Colorado—he has 53 of them under his belt, most he has completed solo. Logan Jauernigg, from Vail, Colo., is the token young-gun of the group. He brings an enthusiasm to the team like only a 19-year-old can. Lucy Sackbauer, a tele-skier out of Little Cottonwood, Utah helps balance out the testosterone level of the group. Considering she recently won the telemark freeskiing championship, I’m thinking she’ll hold her own on the trip. Bjorn Bauer and Dan Sohner, hailing from Vail and Denver, respectively, bring their talents behind the camera and endless positivity to the group. Rounding out the team is myself, Jesse Levine, currently residing in Fort Collins, Colo. I’m here mainly to porter smoked salmon and provide comedic relief with sudden stomach issues on mountain tops.


A lineup of team members.


We board the first train of the season, which turns out to be a big deal in the town of Durango. People line the streets waving and snapping photos of the old-timey steam engine, which is certainly a symbol of the strength and ingenuity of the settlers of the rugged San Juan Mountains. While the train ambles along the old tracks, actors walk through the cars telling us tall tales of times past when gold and silver ruled the land.


Reenactors paint a historical picture on the train.


We make it through the rolling landscape of Durango and begin to snake along the Animas River toward the jagged mountains of the Weminuche Wilderness, one of the most remote places in Colorado.


The train winds its way along the Animas River.


We get off the train at the Needleton stop, a small mining camp in existence from the late 1880s until it was washed away in the Animas River flood of 1927. The clattering tracks slowly settle as the steam engine fades into the distance. Then silence—we’re left standing alone, blissfully unaware of the hardships ahead.


The train pulls away and the group a long journey by foot.


We head out on foot toward Needle Creek, our packs heavy with the tools for self-supported adventure. There’s no snow here but we carry skis and crampons, tents and the promise of warmth from bottles of fine bourbon.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

River crossings are made easier with modern bridges. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer


We hike on dry trail past cascading waterfalls, moss covered rocks and old growth forest. This isn’t the high desert of the Front Range I’ve become so familiar with over the last decade. It feels more like a lush forest in Oregon as our path meanders along the Needle Creek toward the Chicago Basin.


It’s a long hike before the group gets a chance to make some turns.


After hours of dry hiking, peppered with sporadic patches of knee-deep snow, we eventually make it to camp. Impossibly jagged rock frames the skyline above. It’s a relief to take off our packs and we set up camp fueled by whiskey and banter as the soft alpenglow bounces off distant peaks. The steady hum of the creek drowns out our last words as we fall asleep under the blaze of a nearly full moon.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

With mountains in the distance, the group sets up camp. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 7:00 A.M.

Two hours after our 5 a.m. departure we finally see our first objective of the day, Windom Peak. We plan on climbing the west ridge to the summit where we will access “The Widowmaker,” a steep corridor chiseled through the rock on the mountain’s north face.


The ski portion of the trip begins.

Logan Jauernigg heading up the shoulder of Windom. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Logan Jauernigg heads up the shoulder of Windom. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 9:00 A.M. | WINDOM PEAK 14,088 ft. 

As we climb through a mix of rock and snow I begin to realize that the “stampede” chili last night may have been a bad idea. I fall behind the group for a bathroom break and eventually catch back up with the team on the summit.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Jesse starts to wonder if he made the right dinner choice the night before. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 9:00 A.M.

We ski from just below the summit block onto a 50-degree headwall that rolls into a tight chute. The skiing is marginal at best, but the position of the line is breathtaking. We make calculated turns in steep terrain until we reach the apron, carrying huge smiles and our speed across the valley to our second objective, Sunlight Peak.

Logan Jauernigg dropping into The Widowmaker.

Logan Jauernigg drops into The Widowmaker.

SUNDAY 10:30 A.M.

Kicking steps up Sunlight is pretty easy going. My spirits are high, but my nerves build with each step. We slowly inch closer and closer to the steepest, most exposed climbing and skiing we’ll encounter on the trip.


As the day goes on, the route becomes more exposed.

SUNDAY 10:45 A.M.

As we reach the top of Sunlight’s south face I’m reminded again that freeze-dried chili was a bad idea. My warning to the group of my situation leads Bjorn to immediately grab his camera. This lightens the mood a bit before the next scary pitch to the summit.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

When you gotta go, you gotta go. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 11:00 A.M.

Austin leads us through a small tunnel that allows access to the upper east face, a hidden ramp that should bring us to the summit. My senses are electric as I round the corner to see a patch of steep snow precariously balanced over a 500-foot cliff.

Austin Porzak with the sneak move to the Sunlight ramp.

Austin Porzak with the sneak move to the Sunlight ramp.

SUNDAY 11:15 A.M.

Weather rolls in as we begin the down-climb onto the thin, exposed ramp to the summit. A thick fog meets the cliffs below, making the open expanse feel like it drops off into another world.

Jesse Levine down climbing onto the Sunlight ramp. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Jesse Levine downclimbs onto the Sunlight ramp. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Austin Porzak carefully working his way to the summit of Sunlight. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Austin Porzak carefully works his way to the summit of Sunlight. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 11:45 A.M. | SUNLIGHT PEAK 14,058 ft. 

After climbing the ramp we take turns carefully jumping out onto the summit, a small freestanding block with a 1,000-foot drop on all sides.

Logan Jauernigg demonstrating “The leap of faith” move to the summit block. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Logan Jauernigg demonstrates “The leap of faith” move to the summit block. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Summit Block Video

summit_block-bw from Backcountry Magazine on Vimeo.

SUNDAY 12:00 P.M.

We celebrate quickly then get back to the business of making precise jump turns down the ramp, past the exposure and back to solid ground on the south face.

Jesse Levine mid-flight above the open expanse. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Jesse Levine mid-flight above the open expanse. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 12:15 P.M.

The south face of Sunlight holds perfect corn as we arc smooth turns into the valley below.

Lucy Sackbauer dropping the knee in front of the Sunlight Pinnacle. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Lucy Sackbauer drops a knee in front of the Sunlight Pinnacle. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

SUNDAY 1:00 P.M.

As we head west toward our third objective of the day, Mt. Eolus, we look back to see Windom and Sunlight standing like giants in the distance. So far, these imposing massifs have let us pass without incident—are we pushing our luck going for one more summit today?


A view from the top.

SUNDAY 3:30 P.M.

We reach the East Couloir on Eolus. The climbing in the bottom half of the line requires 45 minutes of tunneling through armpit-deep snow. As dark clouds build above us we eventually find firmer snow in the top half of the line and make quick progress to the west face.

Austin Porzak finds firmer snow in the top half of the East couloir.

Austin Porzak finds firmer snow in the top half of the East Couloir.

SUNDAY 5:00 P.M. | MT. EOLUS 14,085 ft.

We top out on the summit of Eolus. We stop for a moment to take a portrait and celebrate Austin’s accomplishment of climbing all 54 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado.

“This was our 3rd 14er of the day and my true 14er finisher. I saved this mountain for last to honor Joe Stollar and his family. I thought about Joe and his family, especially his son Eric throughout this mission. Thank you Joe.” – Austin Porzak

“This was our third 14er of the day and my true 14er finisher. I saved this mountain for last to honor Joe Stollar and his family. I thought about Joe and his family, especially his son Eric throughout this mission. Thank you Joe.” –Austin Porzak

SUNDAY 5:15 P.M.

Thunder crashes as we transition to skis for the descent on the summit. We have to ski a few hundred feet down the west face then climb back up to the ridge to get back to the East Couloir. The clouds are getting dark and snow is starting to fly as we slide through a maze of rock and fleeting lines of snow. I’m beginning to feel the day’s efforts in my legs and have to focus carefully on each movement.

Austin dropping into the maze of rock on the West face of Eolus.

Austin drops into the maze of rock on the west face of Eolus.

SUNDAY 5:30 P.M.

Just as we make it to the entrance of the East Couloir, we’re completely engulfed by the storm.

I’m standing a few hundred feet away from the spot where Joe Stollar lost his life in 1987. I wipe the snow from my goggles with a saturated glove and begin to shiver. I take a few labored breaths of thin air and wonder, “What I’m doing here…soaking wet, exhausted, nauseous—why? And for what?” We’re nearly 8,000 feet and 10 miles away from relief, and I’m at the brink of failure.

Thunder echoes off the rock walls below.


The steep descent is not for the faint of heart.

SUNDAY 6:00 P.M.

As we descend the visibility rapidly decreases. Halfway down the couloir the only definition we have are the steep rock walls leading us into the solid white void below.

Austin working his way down the East couloir.

Austin working his way down the East Couloir.


Fourteen hours after setting out in the morning, we stumble back to camp ready for a hot meal and the last of our whiskey.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer


We muscle overloaded packs onto our sore shoulders again and set off on the six-mile hike back to the ghost town of Needleton in a mix of cool rain and snow. Each of us retreats into our own rhythm with the steady beat of raindrops on our heads.


A drizzle quiets the group.

MONDAY 1:00 P.M.

We get to the train tracks a few hours before the train is due to arrive. We find shelter from the rain in an abandoned shack next to the tracks.

[Photo] Bjorn Bauer

Shelter from the storm after a long day spent outside. [Photo] Bjorn Bauer

MONDAY 3:30 P.M.

We load our gear onto the train in a blur of exhaustion and relief. The whistle blows and our train heads back to civilization. We are mostly silent on the ride through the Animas Gorge toward Durango.


The train arrives to take the group back to civilization.

MONDAY 4:30 P.M.

The train sways back and forth as I stare off into the vast Weminuche Wilderness. I can’t help but imagine unruly miners gently rocking in their seats heading into the unknown, looking for gold and silver. I imagine them filled with hope and optimism as they ride the train toward a seemingly impossible task in this unforgiving place—many of them never to return.

[Photo] Dan Sohner

Train rides are a good time for introspection. [Photo] Dan Sohner


Three days ago, Austin shared his gut-wrenching story about Joe Stollar with me before we boarded this old train. Throughout our trip I’ve been thinking about the risks we take in the mountains and if it’s all worth it. I wonder how I would handle a death like that. Would I stop pushing the boundaries? Stop adventuring?

It’s hard to say, but I think, like Austin, I would keep pushing my limits. Not for the sheer joy of a summit or a ski descent, but for the idea of exploring what’s possible. It’s in that process that we discover the true gold—a brief glimpse of ourselves and the world that just makes sense.

Is that worth the risk? Absolutely.


The arrival back in Durango.

This story is dedicated to the life and memory of Logan Jauernigg

Two weeks after our trip to Chicago Basin, Logan Jauernigg drowned in a kayaking accident in Washington State. At 19 years old he climbed 5.14, paddled class V, and skied with the grace and composure of someone twice his age. He was humble, funny and had a limitless passion for adventure. He turned 20 on the last day of our trip. I feel lucky to have helped him celebrate 20 years of a joy-filled life. Thanks for the inspiration Logan. RIP


Portrait of Logan Jauernigg

All photos were taken by Jesse Levine unless otherwise accredited. To find more of Levine’s work, visit reelmotioninc.com and www.instagram.com/reelmotion/.

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  1. Michelle schlund says:

    ThankYou for this beautiful recount of an amazing adventure, and heartfelt memoriam to my SON, My Logan Cole. 5/4/95-5/15/15. I can’t begin to tell you how much this trip meant to Logan, he was more excited than I think I had ever seen him. From the moment he got back home , he was trying so hard to figure out a way to join you the following weekend to summit your final 14’er. with only one day in between that adventure and leaving for the PNW on his next adventure, it did not happen……….. ThankYou for taking some of Logan’s ashes with you to that final summit on your list.- He made it up there after all. gratefully and tearfully, Logan’s Mom

  2. ulf jauernigg says:

    Very good story, Logan would have been proud to be in your magazine as since he would take my copy and read them cover to cover. Then when he was 8 it was time to teach him to tele and he never looked back. Thanks for the great read!

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